Even art murals can’t dig Toledo out of its budget hole

By Maggie Thurber | for Ohio Watchdog

MURALS: Toledo Councilwoman Lindsay Webb believes murals painted on the sides of buildings are an economic development tool – and wants tax dollars to pay for it.

Toledo City Council has a new economic development tool: murals.

That’s right, spending $20,000 of taxpayer money to paint murals on buildings in the city is a form of economic development. At least, that’s what two members of the council would have you believe.

But as council debated the 2014 budget Tuesday, it learned a stated $418,000 in unbudgeted revenue, the source of the mural program funding, didn’t exist.

The truth is much worse.

By law, the city must approve a budget each year no later than March 31. In 2013, former Mayor Mike Bell presented a budget showing a so-called surplus of $418,000. As of Feb. 14, the budget of newly elected Mayor D. Michael Collins showed the same thing.

So with some $400,000 in allocated money, the council spending proposals began.

District 2 Councilwoman Lindsay Webb and at-large Councilman Steve Steele introduced an amendment to allocate $20,000 to the Mural Program by Art Corner Toledo.

So just what is this mural program and how will it grow jobs in the city? Details at the council meeting were scarce, but Webb said she wants to roll out the program in other parts of town.

“It is very clear to me that the mural movement has contributed to helping eliminate neighborhood blight and create neighborhood beautification and also has worked as an economic development tool,” she said.

Promoting Toledo and fostering change through art and activism is ACT’s goal, according to its website:

“Sticking to grassroots ideals, ACT strives to connect consciously-minded artists with organizations who actually need the community’s support in order to carry out their missions. The issues ACT promotes are not mainstream, as they sometimes express controversial and subversive points of view. The Humane Society and the Red Cross, for example, are worthy organizations, but they do not need an underground army of revolutionaries to help them generate funds or raise awareness.”

It’s hard to see how all the residents of the city will be proud of art that expresses “subversive points of view.” It’s much harder to understand why an organization that, by its own admission, promotes issues and ideas outside the mainstream, is deserving of public tax dollars.

Fortunately for Toledoans, all spending proposals for the budget were tabled until Monday.

It soon became clear to everyone the $418,000 surplus didn’t exist.

Whether because of new bills the city said it just received, funding cuts from the state, notice of increased rent for their offices, or the retroactive raises council just gave some city workers, the council couldn’t approve the budget as planned.

Let the finger-pointing begin.

The hard truth, which no one wanted to admit , is the city never really had a “surplus.” You see, the 2014 budget relies on a transfer of millions of dollars from the Capital Improvements Plan fund to balance the general fund budget.

The CIP covers capital projects, usually with a life of more than five years. Road repairs, HVAC systems, computer programs and hardware, equipment and vehicles are examples of items paid with improvement-plan money.

The General Fund covers the everyday expenses of the city — from office supplies to salaries for workers.

The budgets from both mayors planned to divert $14 million from the CIP to cover General Fund expenditures. In fact, over the past several years the council has approved transfers of more than $76 million out of the CIP just to cover daily spending. The 2014 transfer would bring that total to $90 million.

The $418,000 in the proposed budgets only existed because council raided the CIP.

Logic — and probably most taxpayers — would say that instead of spending that money, take less out of the fund that covers roads, especially after a horrible winter.

District 3 Councilman Mike Craig seemed to understand the bigger picture.

“The city isn’t growing fast enough to cover the expansion in wages so we need either new taxes, new revenue, or we need to the cut the number of workers in the city,” he said. “Those choices need to be made by the 12 people sitting up here and the mayor. It’s our responsibility.”

But Webb was unyielding.

“I will revisit my proposed amendment in light of the budget discussions tonight,” she said. “But my desire to move forward with city funding for this stands.”

Rob Port is the editor of SayAnythingBlog.com, a columnist for the Forum News Service, and host of the Plain Talk Podcast which you can subscribe to by clicking here.

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